The History of the World, Part I

I really do plan to watch some serious important movies in this series, but since I have a concert ticket for tonight, it’s the Sunday Lunchtime Movie instead. So I wanted to go with something light.

I’ve seen surprisingly few Mel Brooks movies. I opted for this first over High Anxiety because of the ones I hadn’t seen it was the one I heard about the most. If it weren’t for the “Funkytown” bit I would never have guessed it was made as late as 1981; so much about it feels older, from the pacing and the flavor of the jokes and the pedigree of the cast to the musical number.

There were a few jokes I couldn’t imagine flying today, though only a couple of gratuitous uses of the F-word (no, not that one) seemed really objectionable. Brooks played a couple of endearingly good-natured characters along with his usual panoply of potentates, and while his movies are not where I’d look for positive treatments of women, I enjoyed the clear delineation he drew between the behavior of his ruling class characters and that of his heroes.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the structure of the movie, and it ended up being appealingly loose, from the documentary-style montage of quick jokes about cavemen to the long (and most engaging) Ancient Rome mini-movie, through the Inquisition musical number to the shorter French Revolution mini-movie. I don’t think this is his funniest movie (though when you watch a comedy alone it’s always hard to tell) but it’s probably his most Pythonesque.

Let’s face it, though, the best part of this is Madeline Kahn. She’s got that terrific manic joy barely kept in check under a surface layer of total cool, and she has some of the best lines in the movie, including “I love Quicktime Harch.”

The Thin Man

Having decided it’s well past time I started watching a few grown-up movies I’d never gotten around to seeing, as opposed to spending all my screen time on the same British science fiction shows, I inaugurate tonight my Sunday Night Movie.

The first selection: The Thin Man, a classic detective story from the Thirties, adapted from the novel by Dashiell Hammett. It’s just about as soft-boiled as these things get, filled with charming banter, genteel investigative techniques, and even one of those dinner parties where the detective lays out the whole story and baits the murderer into betraying himself. There’s a little bit of violence, the most jarring instance of which has a man belt his wife across the face in order to knock her out of a gunman’s line of fire, but he does save her life, and honestly they were both probably drunk enough not to feel a thing.

For you see, this is Nick and Nora Charles, the famous husband-and-wife detective team on which were based Frank and Sadie Doyle, the married mediums played by Paul F. Tompkins and Paget Brewster in the Thrilling Adventure Hour podcast and stage show (and now graphic novel, of all things). Both couples have many qualities in common, but foremost are their propensity for affectionate witty repartee, their utter devotion to one another, and their almost utterer devotion to hard liquor. I definitely missed a trick not preparing a cocktail or three to go with this movie. Instead I had fast food and two cats using me as furniture. It could have been worse.

The movie could have been a lot worse. I recently watched Alfred Hitchcock’s version of The Thirty-Nine Steps, which honestly was rather difficult to get through, but this was thoroughly entertaining, and has renewed my hope of coming to appreciate the early years of cinema. With the exception of a few bit parts who got hungry waiting for their lines and started gnawing the scenery, everyone’s terrific, particularly William Powell and Myrna Loy as the leads, and a terrier named Asta as their terrier named Asta. I also quite enjoyed Nat Pendleton as the police lieutenant who looks like Josh Brolin in profile. The mystery itself is kind of batty, but it’s not meant to be noir — cheery party lights everywhere, with none of the guilty parties loathsome enough to be disturbing or untarnished enough to feel sorry for. The only real disappointment for me was that I’d gotten the idea Nick and Nora solved the crimes together, but while their partnership is impressively equal for what we imagine of 1934, it’s Nick who was the detective until recently and he’s the one doing most of the work. At least she’s the one who convinces him to do it.

As a rule I prefer Chandler to Hammett, but it’s a rule I can see myself breaking more often, especially when I’m more in the mood for love than loneliness. I give this one two martinis up.